Recently, the committed relationship of two friends of ours came to an end after 15 years. This morning, in my email in-box was a message from another good friend, announcing the end of his relationship of 3½ years. Earlier in the weekend, a friend of mine texted me to let me know that a relationship of several months was now over. Over the years, we've had many friends who've gone through break-ups or divorces. Sometimes both partners in the relationship have been friends of ours, and we've had to negotiate the challenges of preserving our friendships with each, even as their relationship with each other ends.
Whenever this has happened before, I've observed mixed emotions. The anguish of loss is almost always accompanied by relief that a difficult -- perhaps impossible -- situation is finally coming to an end. People wrestle with the hopes and aspirations they had for the relationship at one point or another -- usually including the hope that it might have been a "forever" relationship -- versus the recognition of the ways this particular relationship fell short of that aspiration. There's usually a kind of grieving that accompanies this recognition. Sometimes the grieving includes cynicism about relationships in general; sometimes it includes shame and feelings of guilt or inadequacy.
The truth almost always lies at some paradoxical intersection of the various conflicting emotions. It is possible that a relationship simultaneously facilitated growth (in some areas) and stagnation (in others). In any relationship, we are (with rare exceptions) both the victims of bad choices made by our partner, and the perpetrator of mistakes that harmed our partner and us and the relationship. (It's seldom useful to try to figure out how much we are the former vs. the latter.) No relationship is predestined to end. Any relationship can be preserved if both partners are willing to make the requisite shifts in perspective and to act on their shifted perspectives. At the same time, no relationship is required to last. Ultimately, a relationship begins or aborts, grows or fades, endures or ends based upon the interrelated choices of two people. We choose what we want, and consciously or unconsciously we go for it, with consequences.
It should go without saying that no matter how committed one partner is to a relationship, a relationship is only possible if both are committed.
Is a relationship the be all and end all of existence? I guess the answer to that question always, always depends on the person answering it. Relationships always have the value that we invest in them. They can be of eternal significance, of incalculable worth, capable of rewarding any effort to preserve and nurture them. Or they can be of contingent worth, mere temporary stepping stones on the much greater journey of self-discovery, needing to be let go once we have outgrown their usefulness. Or they can (paradoxically) be both.
I think if a couple manages to live long enough together, they actually experience several different relationships with each other. The relationship I have with Göran, of which we recently celebrated the 18th anniversary, has actually been at least four different relationships that I can name. In a very real sense, in order for us to stay together, we've periodically had to let go of an existing relationship, renegotiate, and accept the terms of a new relationship. We've had to learn to accept that as time went on, we grew and became different people, and we had to be willing to enter into a relationship with that "new" person.
The different relationships Göran and I have had have included: (1) the passionate, idealized, romantic relationship of our early years; (2) the "shared yoke," the trials and difficulties and challenges we somehow managed to support each other through once the blush of romance faded (working through my depression and unemployment; his family and identity issues); and (3) the time of trial as our relationship reached "middle age," as each of our faults and inadequacies became increasingly apparent to the other, our illusions about each other and ourselves and the relationship were shattered or withered, and we had to decide, with eyes fully open, "Do I still love this person?" (Or, more importantly, "Do I feel worthy to be loved?" The questions are interrelated.)
In the third stage, Göran and I have each gone through significant transformations. It is as if our relationship has been a cocoon from which we now emerge as different creatures. He is stronger, more self-confident and assertive. He finally knows who his family are and has answers to questions we've been trying to answer for over a decade. He has a much stronger sense of who he is. And my sins and failings have taught him to be more self-reliant. He is, in many ways, the opposite of what he was when we first met. I, on the other hand, have "discovered religion." I've abandoned many axioms I once accepted as rock solid, and accepted others. I've lost a sense of myself as the center of my own universe. That's part of what confessing God is all about. So in significant ways, we're switching places. I used to be the confident one, he the more dependent; now I'm having to learn the nature of my own dependence, while he spreads his wings. It's not easy!
I believe that in this third stage, we each caught glimpses of what our life missions are. We began to understand what it is we are called to do for the rest of our lives. We increasingly found ourselves in parenting/mentoring relationships with the next generation. And so in the new and fourth stage we are entering, the question becomes, How can we facilitate the other accomplishing his life calling? In a way, this part of the relationship is as perilous as any that came before it. We could easily spin off, putting mission before relationship. Or we could find out how mission and relationship are interconnected. After all, our relationship has always been the home base from which all learning has been made possible before. It's been the framework within which we've each learned who we are by studying ourselves in the mirror of the other.
What if Göran and I had broken it off at the end of relationship (1)? This happens often enough... So many relationships end once the initial electricity goes from ecstatic jolt to modest current. There's still energy flowing, but if you're addicted to the "jolt," you'll pull the plug and go in search of the big charge again. We could have ended it at the end of relationship (2) as well, once we'd made it past some of the early challenges of life and felt like we didn't "need" each other any more. Stage (3) has got to be the hardest. How does a relationship survive when you've become disillusioned with each other? When you've become disillusioned with yourself? I think this is where so many long term relationships end. These are the break-ups that happen after 15-20 years of shared life. And these are perhaps the most painful. But with disillusionment comes truth, so it's hard for me not to get excited about the potential for stage (4). I'm not sure what I would do without the bedrock of affection and shared experience we have after eighteen years together.
If we break off and seek a new relationship, do we pick up where we left off with the new person? Or do we have to start over at stage 1? What do we learn if there is no new person, or rather, if the "new person" is just ourselves?
In the eternal scheme of things, I'm still far too young to answer any of these questions. I suspect the answer will be different for each person and each relationship.
I'm painfully aware of my own inadequacies at the moment. But I am cautiously hopeful that that awareness can be fertile soil for good things.
I'm praying for my friends right now too... Those whose relationships are ending... I pray for them to grieve well and to learn. I pray to be an adequate friend to them. And I am looking to them as teachers too. Whatever becomes of our "relationships," none of us are islands, neither in our singleness nor in our relatedness. Specific relationships are just part of a web of relationality within which we all exist, within which we all learn and grow, and within which we all have a responsibility to nurture and care for one another.